A teacher, superintendent, rural school supervisor, civic leader, and Mississippi’s first state home demonstration agent, Susie Powell played an instrumental role in improving the standards of living for Mississippi’s rural girls and women.
Susan Virginia Powell was born on 3 April 1872 in Batesville, Mississippi, to Sanford Daniel Powell and Susan Virginia Johnson Powell. One of ten children, Powell spent her childhood in Brookhaven. After graduating from high school, she attended Whitworth College in Brookhaven, the University of Mississippi, and the University of Chicago. She then returned to Mississippi and taught in Lawrence and Lincoln Counties. She later served as a superintendent and rural school supervisor for the Mississippi Department of Education. During her tenure as teacher and administrator, she did much to improve the teaching methods, facilities, and grounds of rural schools. She also had a marked influence on early consolidation of schools.
In 1911 the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) invited Powell to organize girls’ Tomato Clubs in Mississippi. The Tomato Club movement, which was part of the agricultural extension system, was designed to create an educational organization that would reach rural girls and through them their mothers to improve home conditions. Powell agreed, hoping that girls’ club work would improve the rural diet and accord farm women a more important role in family nutrition.
The organization of girls’ clubs and their growth in activity and influence in Mississippi was very much a story of rural leadership in action. Powell led the development of the clubs with unfailing enthusiasm and optimism. She was instrumental, for example, in securing the passage of state legislation supporting girls’ club work. Since she believed that the girls’ club movement and women’s organizations marched hand in hand, she called on the Mississippi Federation of Women’s Clubs for support. She also sought aid from Mississippi Agricultural and Mechanical College, local merchants, bankers, ministers, boards of supervisors, and school superintendents, pointing out the community value of the movement to anyone who would listen. In 1913 girls’ Tomato Clubs became part of the 4-H system.
With the passage of the 1914 Smith-Lever Act establishing the Federal Extension Service, the USDA expanded the girls’ club movement to include women’s home demonstration work, which sought to reach into the kitchens of farm wives to help them solve problems. Powell was appointed to head the effort in Mississippi. Under her leadership, the club movement spread throughout the state as Powell and her agents attempted to raise the standard of rural life. By the time Powell abruptly resigned in 1924 over an administrative dispute with the director of the Mississippi Agricultural Extension Service, she had led thousands of rural girls and women toward improved standards of living. In a tribute to Powell, a colleague wrote, “She did more for the womanhood of Mississippi than any other one person.”
Powell continued to serve Mississippi women as president of the Mississippi Federation of Women’s Clubs. During the 1930s she became the state supervisor of the Works Progress Administration’s historical project. In 1946 the Mississippi Agricultural Extension honored Powell with a scholarship in her name. She died on 9 July 1952.
- Ollie Dean McWhirter, “The Work of Miss Susie V. Powell” (master’s thesis, Mississippi State University, 1964)
- Danny Moore, Journal of Mississippi History (Summer 2001)
- Lee H. Moseley, “History of Mississippi Cooperative Extension Service,” Mississippi Cooperative Extension Service Collection, University Archives, Special Collections, Mitchell Memorial Library, Mississippi State University
- Susie V. Powell, “Pioneer Club Work,” James E. Tanner Papers, University Archives, Special Collections, Mitchell Memorial Library, Mississippi State University